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Texas sect custody hearing turns into circus

A long line forms Thursday at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, where child custody hearings began for the children taken from a polygamist sect.

Associated Press

A long line forms Thursday at the Tom Green County Courthouse in San Angelo, Texas, where child custody hearings began for the children taken from a polygamist sect.

SAN ANGELO, Texas — It took only a few minutes from the judge's opening gavel Thursday for an emergency court hearing on the fate of 416 children taken by the state from a polygamist compound two weeks ago to dissolve into chaos.

Hundreds of lawyers in two packed buildings shouted objections. "I assume most of you want to make the same objection. Can I have a universal, 'Yes, Judge?' " asked Judge Barbara Walther. In both buildings, the lawyers stood and responded in unison: "Yes, Judge."

Court exhibits had to be copied and carried between the locations by clerks. It took an hour just to enter the first exhibit into the record.

The case — one of the biggest, most convoluted child custody hearings in U.S. history — presented an extraordinary spectacle: big-city lawyers in suits and mothers in pioneer-style dresses, all packed into a courtroom and a nearby auditorium connected by video.

At issue is an attempt by the state of Texas to strip the parents of custody and place the children in foster homes because of evidence they were physically and sexually abused by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a renegade Mormon splinter group suspected of forcing underage girls into marriage with older men.

By evening, only three witnesses had testified, including state child welfare investigator Angie Voss, who said women may have had children when they were minors, some as young as age 13. At least five girls who are younger than 18 are now pregnant or have children, she said.

No decisions had been made on the fate of any of the youngsters, and the hearing was to continue today.

Additional details on life at the ranch began to emerge as Voss testified. She said that if one of the men fell out of favor with the sect, his wives and children would be reassigned to other men. The children would then identify the new man as their father. Voss said that contributed to the problem of identifying children's family links and their ages.

Some lawyers complained heatedly to Walther that the mass hearing, radically different from a typically intimate Family Court custody session, was unfair and benefited the state. Just as vehemently, Walther denied their objections and said all parties would be heard, no matter how long that took.

"We have to balance the requirement in the statutes that this hearing must be held within 14 days," Walther said.

A lawyer for the Texas Division of Child Protective Services said the agency would seek psychiatric examinations for the children and genetic testing of both the children and adults. The department will also try to have the children moved to other parts of the state.

At the hearing, state officials said they had not located the 16-year-old girl whose phone call to an abuse hot line, they said, prompted the raid. Voss testified that at the ranch several girls said they knew the caller, who had identified herself as Sarah. But they were uncooperative under further questioning, Voss said.

Among the first witnesses, Sgt. Danny Crawford produced documents that he said showed marriages among the sect, including some that seemed to suggest that the wives had been under 16 when they wed. Under Texas law, no girl under 16 can legally marry, even with her parents' permission.

But under questioning, Crawford acknowledged that the documents simply listed the names of men with their wives and children listed beneath them. There was no indication what age the wives had been when they married and no proof of sexual abuse.

The sect came to West Texas in 2003, relocating some members from the church's home along the Utah-Arizona border. Its prophet and spiritual leader, Warren Jeffs, is in prison for forcing an underage girl into marriage in Utah.

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

Texas sect custody hearing turns into circus 04/17/08 [Last modified: Friday, April 18, 2008 10:49am]
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